Monster of a Box
Many a film has striven for “nightmarish,” but few succeed. Most try the blood-and-ghoulish-gore route (see The Cell), but the truly terrifying isn’t what we see — it’s what we feel. Paranoia, isolation, the horrible feeling that we’re being watched. It’s the fear of what we can’t see that’s the deepest. It’s the deep dread that sneaks up on you in the middle of the night, as you lie awake in the dark unable to close your eyes because you suddenly grasp that one day, they’re never gonna open again.
Cube is one of those rare films that make you itch uncomfortably on the inside. It’s not relentlessly grisly, though it does contain a couple of glimpses of more horrible things than you’ve probably ever imagined could happen to a human body — it’s the things we never see onscreen, the things that go unexplained, that worm their way into your head. Ever wake up with dream images that linger through the morning, ones you suspect might hold some personal meaning for you if only you could look at them straight on? That’s what Cube feels like, and keeps feeling like long after you’ve finished watching it.
A handful of people find themselves lost in a maze of metallic cubelike rooms. Doors in the center of each surface, six in all in each room, lead to rooms that are nearly identical, though colors vary slightly and some rooms are horrendously booby-trapped. The purpose of the structure is entirely a mystery. The group of prisoners gathers as, one by one, each stumbles across others in their exploratory travels through the Cube. There’s young Leaven (Nicole de Boer), a schoolgirl; Holloway (Nicky Guadagni), a doctor; Worth (David Hewlett), a weasel; Kazan (Andrew Miller), who is autistic; Rennes (Wayne Robson: Affliction), an escape artist(!); and Quentin (Maurice Dean Wint), a cop. All agree they don’t know how they got into the Cube, and they team up to search for a way out.
Who put them in there? The government? Aliens? Is it a prison? A test? A “rich psycho’s entertainment”? (The answer is so disconcerting that it’s almost impossible to grasp, or believe… and, indeed, it may not even be true.) As they discover that each of them has, perhaps, a particular talent that will help them figure out what’s going on, how to avoid booby traps, and ultimately how to escape, factions begin to form and tensions build. They don’t agree on the best course of action, and might one of them be a spy for whomever is in charge? The grating mechanical noises that echo through the Cube all around them seem to be the manifestation of the stress they’re under, stress they act out on one another. Holloway estimates they have only a few days without food and water before they’re too weak to continue, and yet they slow themselves down with their virulent bickering. This is Survivor with a real bite. As Rennes says, “Ya gotta save yourselves from yourselves,” and they’re not doing a terribly good job of that.
Does Cube feel like one of those Star Trek episodes where it turns out aliens were experimenting on Kirk and Spock/Picard and Crusher/Sisko and Kyra/Janeway and Chakotay all along? Yeah, a bit. But Trek (almost) always wrapped things up neatly, allowing Capt. Whoever to make a nice speech about the Prime Directive before returning to duty with no psychological damage whatsoever. Cube is not so tidy. Unsettling and disturbing, this puzzle box of a movie, cowritten and directed by Vincenzo Natali, doesn’t give us easy outs, neat resolutions, or even terribly likable characters. We root for them only because of the direness of their situation. Theirs is so awful a plight that you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy.
Worse, Cube is one more thing that’ll keep you wide awake in the quietest, darkest part of the night.